'Hypothetical Baby' written and performed by Rachel Cairns
Runs until December 17 in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace
Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Rachel Cairns
‘An intimate and emotional solo show performance’
Hypothetical Baby is as intimate and emotional as it is politically relevant. Whether it’s the specific details about writer-performer Rachel Cairns’ life or her more TEDxTalk-style explanations of broader feminist issues, I can’t imagine anyone leaving this show without feeling a deeper introspection about themselves or an acute awareness about the socio-political state of the world.
When the lights went out after Cairns’ last line, it seemed that everyone was so emotional they forgot to clap. For a few seconds, all I heard was a mix of sniffles and the shaking chairs from people suppressing their full–body sobs. It’s not that I thought a story about abortion would be incredibly light-hearted, but I was surprised by the extent to which it impacted me and the people around me.
Hypothetical Baby is a solo-show written and performed by Rachel Cairns, a multidisciplinary artist known for her award-winning podcast “Aborsh” about abortion in Canada. Hypothetical Baby begins with Cairns inquiring about how to get an abortion, and the doctor inquiring about her financial and relationship status to figure out why she would even want an abortion. After discovering that Cairns is meant to fly back home to Vancouver the next day, the conclusion is that this is an issue for Cairns and some other clinic in Vancouver. Ultimately, Cairns finds herself getting a “medical abortion” on Christmas Eve in her family home.
Although this specific event inspires the rest of Hypothetical Baby, as Cairns explains in the show, life isn’t just an “event”, it’s a “process”. Therefore, for the remainder of the show, Cairns jumps back and forth in time to analyze what led to her ultimately choosing to get an abortion and how it continues to affect her to this day. She also goes through the history of Canadian abortion laws and other systemic issues to analyze how the “choice” she made isn’t fully hers.
Cairns first refers to the titular “hypothetical baby” in the days leading up to her abortion when her signs of a healthy pregnancy make her briefly consider what it would hypothetically be like to have this baby. Obviously, most of the concerns are financial. She’s been told many times that there’s never a “perfect time to have a baby", and she asks: Why not? Despite Canada being such a “progressive” country, its capitalist structure creates various access barriers that prevent people from keeping a child even if they wanted to. And so, although Cairns legally can choose to get an abortion, how much of a choice does she really have? And how much less of a choice do other people have?
Cairns is self-aware of her specific privileges and disadvantages as a white woman with a non-salaried job living in Ontario. Through a mix of her personal interactions with other women, as well as her mini-lectures, she shows the audience how the intersections of gender, race, citizenship, able-bodiedness, and class play into reproductive rights.
With the mix of so many personal anecdotes and lectures, Cairns covers a lot of ground within the 75-minute time frame. There are moments that could have felt random, like a long section about author Sylvia Plath’s life or a presentation on how women are specifically affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, everything in the show connects strongly to the question of the hypothetical baby. Every moment is deeply personal to Cairns’ story, but also exposes Canadian society and specific systemic issues that I have not seen explored so directly on stage before.
The production elements are very simple, but effective. There is a small platform with a rug, chair, and white backdrop. Along with this set, the lighting, projections, and sound transport the audience to various locations including a walk-in clinic, a house party, a Hudson’s Bay, and the bathroom where she experiences her abortion while her family has Christmas Eve dinner downstairs.
Director Lancaster keeps the information-packed story flowing, while also giving the audience the time and space to sit with the heavier emotional moments of the piece. Lancaster makes specific choices about when to pull out all the bells and whistles or when to hold back. At times, Cairns is very active throughout the space, and the sound and projections are as overwhelming as what she is experiencing. Then there are other moments when Cairns is simply sitting in a chair and talking to the audience. Each choice made by both Lancaster as a director and Cairns as an actor does justice to how emotional, provocative, intimate, angry, political, educational, and even funny the text itself is.
One of my favorite aspects of Hypothetical Baby is Cairns’ portrayals of conversations between herself and other characters, especially with the characters who are a bit harder to sympathize with like her uncommunicative boyfriend or the failed actor turned anti-abortion public speaker she stalks online. Although Cairns doesn’t justify their behavior, by stepping into their shoes, they reveal larger societal issues to Cairns as well as her own internal conflict about her abortion.
The heart of the piece, however, is the relationship between Cairns and her mother who is there for the entire story including her abortion, her existential crises about her career, issues with her relationship, and the final moment of the show that left most of the audience sobbing. Cairns’ mother’s story draws many parallels to her own story, and provides a really personal exploration of the concept of motherhood as a “choice”.
In the same way that Cairns’ connects with the many people around her regardless of how different their stories may be, I believe that anybody who watches Hypothetical Baby will find something that resonates with them.
THE HOWLAND COMPANY presents
‘Hypothetical Baby’ written and performed by Rachel Cairns
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Sound Design by Cosette Pin
Production, Lighting & Projection Design by Julia Howman
Associate Technical Artist: Emily Jung